In business? Your attorney wants you to think about accessibility

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The ADA is coming to your website and other customer and employee communications. What are you doing about it?

For a long time corporations have not prioritized accessibility in their websites and other electronic communications.AngryJudge-sm That’s changing. According to Brian Muse, a specialist in defending against ADA claims, the last ten years have “seen an explosion of these lawsuits.”

Since the earliest attempts to make accessible content a general convention rather than a specialized effort undertaken by advocates, the vast majority of commercial activity in this area has focused on government-generated content as well as that generated by commercial organizations servicing government contracts.

It would be nice if we could say that action in making online stores, documents and websites accessible was due to commercial interest in winning the business of affected populations, or perhaps was simply a function of better educated web-developers. Unfortunately, the misperception remains strong, even among web-developers, that accessibility is complex and mysterious.

In the United States the problem is slowly resolving itself in the time-honored American tradition: at the courthouse.

The legal methods available to plaintiffs are increasing in number and strength as society increasingly moves transactions and vital information online. Attorneys are rushing to blog their expertise at defending against a new “tidal-wave of cyber accessibility claims.”  Government agencies, insurance companies and banks are no longer the only, or even the prime targets, of the current generation of legal activity. A wide range of businesses are increasingly coming under scrutiny for the accessibility of their websites and the documents they use in communicating with customers, vendors, regulators and the general public.

Why? It’s slowly becoming understood that accessible content isn’t mysterious, but reasonable best-practice in general. The US Justice Department is slowly turning the big gun of accessibility policy, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), bringing it to bear on the way the world exchanges products, services and information in the 21st century. The ADA has not traditionally applied to the Internet (the law doesn’t actually mention it at all), but the process is well underway, with a Proposed Rule due by December of 2013.

Let’s look at a few high-profile examples of actual cases from just the last year or so:

H&R Block. Just last week, H&R Block, the well-known tax preparation firm, became the latest household name to be named as defendant in a lawsuit based on the ADA. According to the complaint, H&R Block’s websites are “places of public business” and must therefore be accessible to people with disabilities. Instead, contends the suit, H&R Block has “been long aware of both the access barriers [in its websites] and the means by which its web sites could be made accessible.”

Marriott.  In 2012 the famous hotel chain ran afoul of a class-action suit initiated by a company employee who claimed that he was denied equal opportunity for advancement because the customer relationship management (CRM) system that was an integral part of his job was inaccessible to him.

Charles Schwab. In 2012 the well-known brokerage settled a complaint brought by blind investors who could not access the information they needed from the Charles Schwab website. While the settlement terms were undisclosed Charles Schwab did agree to upgrade their website to ensure equal access.

While the last 15 or so years have seen dramatic improvements in general understandings about web and document accessibility, the vast majority of private-sector organizations have yet to review their public-facing content, not to mention employee-facing material, for accessibility.

Attorneys are unanimous in their recommendations:

Take complaints seriously.  The ADA has fearsome enforcement provisions; why take the chance of going to court in the first place? Attorney’s fees aren’t typically recoverable from losers, so a bad website can cost you lots of legal time. It’s cheaper and easier to include accessibility in planning electronic content instead of talking to your lawyer and retrofitting an inaccessible system.

Verify claims. Not all vendors, web-developers or IT managers have the same degree of expertise in all areas of content accessibility. Some may understand specific technologies more than others, some may think about accessibility from an application-centered rather than content-centered perspective.

Don’t go for “undue hardship.” First, it’s rarely true; few websites or documents can’t be substantially improved with relatively little effort. Secondly, it impresses no-one. If your competitors can do it, the court will ask, why can’t you?

Take the user’s perspective. While it may seem obvious, few have tried (or even simulated) the process of walking through their own website or document from the point of view of someone who is blind, deaf, cannot use a mouse or must otherwise encounter attempts at communication through the filter of some disability.

In taking the user’s perspective you’ll find a new critical awareness of your content and its presentation that most find is ultimately beneficial in many other ways. Accessible content is not only friendly to blind users, it’s good for those with low-vision, those with color blindness, or less-than-perfect vision. It’s not just about better customer service; attention to accessibility gets you better SEO as well.

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